The Hypocrisy of "Liberté, égalité, fraternité"

Submitted by Daeyeong Kim on Saturday, 10/3/2009, at 5:20 PM

In chapter six, Dostoevsky takes issue with the French motto, "Liberté, égalité, fraternité." He sarcastically states that liberty exists only for the man who has millions. There is no liberty for the common man, as "[t]he person without a million is not the one who does anything he wants to [within the limits of law] but the one with whom they do anything they want" (48). Furthermore, Dostoevsky's scorn for the ostensible "equality" in France is manifest in his devoting a mere sentence to this notion; basically, "every Frenchman can and must take it as a personal insult" (48). 

He then goes on to devote the rest of the chapter to the last and the most hypocritical of the tripartite motto--brotherhood. Dostoevsky argues that the very idea that brotherhood can be created is fundamentally erroneous. Brotherhood isn't something that can be reasoned out, or logically put, because it exists only as a part of nature. The French, owing to their Enlightenment rationalism and egoism, have undermined the third pillar of the foundation of their Republic. What makes them so hypocritical is that they espouse brotherhood, but they are in fact the farthest thing from brotherhood. To Dostoevsky, brotherhood is a paradoxical, interactive love between the self and the community where each gives its all each other. One must reach a "personality on a much higher level than that which is now defined in the West." His Christological notions of agape love is present especially in his language: "to voluntarily lay down one's life for the sake of all, to go to the cross or to the stake for the sake of all ..." (49). The French, however, cannot achieve this because the bourgeois philosophy is essentially grounded in an egocentric philosophy where there is no room for brotherhood--hence, the third of the tripartite motto, "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" deserves the worst criticism. Dostoevsky goes as far as to say that "To be sure, this is even a kind of humiliation of reason" (50). It is the humiliation of reason because the French reject the other half of Enlightenment philosophy, the Rousseauian notion that "Everything is grounded in feeling, in nature," and desperately cling onto reason, and only reason (50). The French have tried to artificially create brotherhood, but have only achieved in creating chaos, and hypocrisy--the bourgeois have become the new aristocracy, utterly besotted with their material goods, while the real third estate has been left destitute.

late notes on the house of the dead and the holocaust

Submitted by Samuel T. Aden on Saturday, 10/3/2009, at 12:46 AM

For one of my classes I am reading a lot of Holocaust literature.  While simultaneously reading Dostoevsky's House of the Dead I inevitably drew some parallels that may or may not prove to be useful.  It is difficult to find a basis upon which to compare the two, but there are similarities by the sheer fact that each scenario portrays a detainment facility where there is a clear authority-subject relation. The intentions of each institution would have a definite effect on the experience of the inmates (and the guards, but I won't really go there). Both the Siberian labor camp and the Nazi concentration camp is intended to approach and deal with the problem of those who are deemed unfit for (Russian; Nazi) society. Each does so by isolating the population of 'undesirables'. Here the differences emerge. In a concentration camp the prisoners are unjustly, totally victimized. Unjustly in that they are being racialized; totally in that they face extermination. In Goryanchikov's prison the prisoners are sent there for a reason and most will leave the prison, some even will leave Siberia and return to Russian society. Even in the prisons, while the inmates are not at work or some other function, they are largely left to their own to develop a culture outside what was prescribed by the authorities. This is not to say that those imprisoned by the Nazis did not do the same, though the prisoners in Siberiawere definitely given more freedoms than those in concentration camps, as is reflected in events such as the decision over which horse to purchase when the Siberian prison needed a new horse was totally given over to the prisoners.


One issue that is much discussed in relation to Holocaust literature is trauma; trauma as a certain affective incomprehensibility of an event. A traumatized person could appear recalcitrant, compulsive, and may experience spells of total immersion of the present self in the moment of trauma - much like Goryanchikov himself as he is described in the introduction. He is up all night writing material of which the intermediary narrator provides us a sample of which is often totally horrifying.

This is a reach. I think it would be really interesting if there really was any influence of trauma in Dostoevsky's intended characterization of Goryanchikov after emerging from prison. All I know is that trauma first became a prominent issue in post-WWI psychology and psychoanalysis with the high rate of war veterans with PTSD.

It is possible to argue that trauma had very little to do with Dostoevsky's own experience in prison. Apparently the Tzar's sadistically, yet hilariously manipulative method of convincing Dostoevsky of his death followed by a last minute redemption worked perfectly in instilling a sense of gratitude and even restoring his faith. In fact, he leaves his life in exile to see western Europe and writes a passionate, scattered manifesto of liberal romantic idealism. Winter Notes is certainly not nihilistic, though it may be very discontent with the current state of things, just as House of the Dead depicts the bleak lives of mistreated criminals, yet resonates with a definite utopian hope. Even Notes from Underground depicts a man of absolute spite and self-affirmation, which is often viewed as a characterization of existentialism. Existentialism would definitely argue itself to be a course of life motivated by hope (perhaps the only alternative to nihilism).

Earlier we discussed the role of a prison as punishment or rehabilitation. In the case of the Siberian labor camp, the goal of the institution is to reform individuals who then may be able to rejoin society. Despite the squalor and injustice of the prison articulated in House of the Dead, did it not achieve its function? Isn't society better off having sent Dostoevsky to prison?

Russian Society and European Culture

Submitted by Hannah M. Gais on Friday, 10/2/2009, at 5:36 PM

One thing that particularly interested me was the relationship between Dostoevsky (or, rather, the narrator) and European culture's influence on Russia.  To wit:

"So what if not everything around us now  is still not very beautiful; we ourselves are so wonderful, so civilized, so European that even the people are ready to vomit from looking at us.  The people now regard us as complete foreigners; they do not understand a single word, a single book, a single thought of ours -- but, as you wish, that is progress.  We no despise our people and native origins so deeply that we treat them with a new, unprecedented disgust suach as did not even exist in the days of our Montbazons and Rohans; but as you wish, that is progress....[N]ationality is merely a system of taxation; the soul is a tabula rasa, a piece of wax from which the real man can be immediately molded, the general, universal man, the homunculus -- you need only appaly the fruits of European civilization and read two or three books" (21).

Provided Dosteovsky's later commentary on the influence of European civilization in the latter portion of the text, it is quite clear he is being rather sarcastic at this point.  Indeed, Russia had become infiltrated by European civilization, especially with the assistance of the upper classes and nobility.  European society and philosophy is seen as "superior," as we can see from Dostoevksy's saterical analysis of the infiltration; hence, traditional Russian culture is, in many ways, viewed as "barbaric."  The West has become a romantic "item" for the nobility; it is viewed as the epitome of civilized society, and due to its status it is loved and admired by these people, even though it is so obviously foreign and does not fit at all into the Russian "mindset," at least that of the pre-Peter the Great era; thus, the distinction between the upper Europeanized classes and the proletariate is furthered through these major cultural distinctions, making those in the nobility seem almost like "foreigners" culturally and linguistically.  In that sense, travelers may feel as if they are doing their "duty" to the Fatherland by traveling, learning, and bringing back their knowledge to their homeland so as to improve it and further its so-called development.

The West has, furthermore, become a sort of refuge for these wealthier individuals.  It is a "refuge for injured feelings" (24), and it is where "everyone goes...when worse comes to worse" (25).  Thus, it becomes not only a symbol of what the nobility in Russia aspires to be, but it is also a method of escaping difficulty, which Dostoevsky seems to ascribe to laziness.  One does not need to change their own country actively; one can, instead, flee to Europe and gaze at its wonders, letting it mold one's personality into that which was originally desired.  However, is this really the best method of escaping issues?  Certainly not!

By going to Europe, it seems, the narrator appears to further justify his hatred of the European influence on Russia. Europe is too materialistic, individualist, etc., at least according to him.  There is, that is to say, too much of an emphasis on the "I" -- especially in France -- which thereby makes the desire for brotherhood on a national scale far too insincere for the narrator's taste.  The desire is, it seems, of the narrator to return to a state in which one's nationality can be appreciated and not hidden, and where one is comfortable with one's identity as a citizen of the country.  This concern, I think, could also be applied to modern Russia as it is today in the post-Soviet and now capitalist world.

Superfluity

Submitted by Jordan M. Gilbertson on Friday, 10/2/2009, at 4:04 PM

One thing I was particularly struck by in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions was Dostoevsky's declaration that the second chapter was "superfluous." While this declaration serves very well to set up the sarcastic treatment with which he describes his trip through Europe, it also seems to work as a meta-narrative for the Russian attitude towards Europe (and vice versa). Dostoevsky mentions how "Europe has been reflected in us [Russians] at various times and has imposed its civilization upon us, over the extent to which we have been civilized, and over exactly how many of us have been civilized so far." Russian attempts to become more European are suggested to be entirely superfluous, because this process of Europeanization cannot overcome the fact that Russia is not fully part of the European mode.

Dostoevsky acknowledges, later in the chapter, that Petersburg (which he sarcastically refers to as the "most fantastic city with the most fantastic history of all the cities on the earth") has served as a bridge for Russiansto become fully European. Yet, his writings seem to imply that all of these attempts to embrace the European lifestyle have merely resulted in disillusionment about the state of Russian society--or "Russian Europe," as he refers to it at the end of the chapter.

This raises the question of where this line of "superfluous" European identity is drawn. He seems to believe that the Russia should possess its own distinctive character, and is particularly critical of the ways in which Russian society merely imports European lifestyles rather than creating its own. However,  this seems to be a matter that Dostoevsky leaves intentionally open.

The Irony of Style

Submitted by Jack L. Seaver on Friday, 10/2/2009, at 2:38 PM

One of the most obvious differences I noticed switching between House of the Dead and Winter Notes on Summer Impressions was the style of writing. Whereas House of the Dead was presented in a sober, rational, easy to follow style, Winter Notes on Summer Impressions is discursive, fairly disorganized, and difficult to follow. It seemed to me that Dostoevsky used these different styles to highlight the differences in his subject matter. It is somewhat ironic that despite the brutality and harshness of life in Siberia, Alexander Petrovich is able to remain calm and fairly collected. The traveler from Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, who is journeying through the heart of the “civilized” world, is incapable of conveying his thoughts in a transparent manner. The reality that Dostoevsky tries to convey is that the civilized bourgeois world is far more complicated and frustrating than anyone would like to admit, compared to the simple reality of surviving Given Dostoevsky’s obvious disdain for the French upper classes, I wonder if there were elements of his Siberian experience that he found solace in more than he admits.

Quixotic Utopias

Submitted by Brigitte C. Morency on Thursday, 10/1/2009, at 9:49 PM

The narrator in Winter Notes takes an exceedingly unrealistic stance toward the concept of Utopia; however, I think he realizes his paradoxical mode of thought. While he chooses to lambaste the French for their hypocritical way of life, the narrator also acknowledges the fact that their behavior is consistent with that of all humanity's. True, no man is willing to give up even a "drop" of his freedom because he is told it is his "unalienable" right. Enlightenment philosophers simultaneously liberated and trammeled men's minds. While they became aware as never before of their individual rights, people also lost the sense of community which is necessary for the narrator's socialist utopia to exist. Fortunately, muses the writer, the Russian people stand as a testament to the tenaciousness of Old World ideals and tight-knit community. Ironically, the narrator is himself enjoying the modern bourgeois freedom he spent so much time criticizing throught his travels of Europe. Got hypocrisy?

Impressions on Russia from abroad

Submitted by Genelle L. Diaz-Silveira on Thursday, 10/1/2009, at 9:35 AM

 

Despite being cloaked as a sort of travel journal, Dostoevsky's Winter Notes is  more a reflection on the Russian people than a record of his time abroad.  He reprimands Russia for idolizing the West. The French are false, materialistic hedonists,  the English dry dreary and salacious- both of them greedy, neither of them capable of true brotherhood. Dostoevsky is on the offense from the start of the book, almost to the point of xenophobia. He cannot understand why Russians have continually tried so hard to imitate the West, why they have at times sacrificed a true identity in lieu of a microcosm of these, as he sees them, corrupt and ersatz identities. In this way, he has once again identified a double consciousness. The Russian people-the educated, not so much the peasants- are so obsessed with perceptions of themselves that they constantly counteract or override manifestations of their culture to imitate what they think is more accepted in the world at large. This idea that this does not really apply to the peasantry, that they have retained and in fact embody the essence of Russia, is a common idea in both Dostoevsky's and Tolstoy's work. The peasantry is different and somehow better. "Civilization" has lost it's way. This idea manifests itself in almost every country among the educated. In the U.S., a common belief among environment-minded people has been that of the "noble savage," the idea that native people who do not operate with the industrial mind set, those who live with the land as our ancestors did, have a more natural connection to the land and do not alter the landscape like the more "civilized" folk. It seems part of human nature to at times, stand back and despise what we have created.  For Dostoevsky, in this book, it is a false society which he rejects, one in which he believes all traces of truth have vanished.

Socialism and the West

Submitted by Jeffrey A. Tucker on Thursday, 10/1/2009, at 5:07 AM

I thought that the main impetus for Dostoevsky's arguments and reflections in this bizarre, personal piece is the agonizing paradox that Russian intellectuals are indebted to Western (mostly French) thinkers for the germs of their progressive socialism, yet no honest Russian can actually see in the French a sign of the moral civilization they claim to represent. As he describes it, the Russian intelligentsia all pay fealty to the West with hopeful pilgrimages, expecting at any moment to be struck with some immense, beautiful truths while they shift their weight nervously in front of Europe's great art and architecture... but no truth ever arrrives. Dostoevsky therefore looks to the actual people, the millions living in Paris and London, to find the facts of the matter. What he finds--an utterly materialistic, self-satisfied bourgeois ruling class--deserves only ridicule. They waste their time and energy on empty "eloquence," living only to appreciate and dazzle with the latest bon mot. The shallow, sentimental bourgeois romanticism of the French seems to drive Dostoevsky mad by the end of the "Winter Notes," when he can't stop himself from unleashing a rambling parody of a powdered adulterous love story (as any French love story must be), which all unfolds impeccably comme il faut.

Most interesting to me was the passage beginning on p. 48 where Dostoevsky considers the inherent challenge to the formation of a socialist utopia: the difficulty of letting go of one's self for the sake of brotherhood. He pins the labels "French" and "Western" on this difficulty, but it isn't hard to see that even the hardy, communal Russian people may hit some hurdles on the path to brotherhood. Further, he is refreshingly critical of his own movement when he argues that if a man's spirit isn't inclined toward submitting to a collective will, then whipping him into accepting it won't do any good, and the socialists who deride such a man are really themselves the ones worthy of scorn, for trying to forcefully impose something that can only succeed by coming from within. Then again, if this is really true, the entire socialist project is doomed, at least in the short run, and that's a problem that can't be escaped by simply saying it's the fault of the French.

On Class and Complacency in Dostoevsky’s Winter Notes on Summer Impressions

Submitted by Eva M. Becker on Wednesday, 9/30/2009, at 11:54 PM

Dostoevsky’s work, Winter Notes on Summer Impressions is a powerful polemic against the hypocrisy ridden in the nineteenth-century idea that modernity is synonymous with “human progress.” Set within the context of his travels, Dostoevsky seamlessly illustrates how the notion of European modernity, particularly as superimposed on Russian society, is a false idea of progress. In Chapter Three in particular, he delineates the impact that Western European thought and culture have had on cosmopolitan Russia, asserting in a most sarcastic and dialogistic manner that Western thought has fully alienated the Russian nobility not only from contemporary, societal issues, but from themselves, as well. Consider, for example, that “in order to be Russian,” one must don a “ballet costume” of French origin and hang oneself up in “foreign suspenders.” In referencing Chatsky, he urges his fellow citizens to see eventually, “he [Chatsky] will realize that there is no refuge for injured feelings in Europe but perhaps right under his nose” (24).

As the Russian gentry hangs itself up in “foreign suspenders,” Dostoevsky wonders if it could really be that “people were already growing bored from having nothing to do, from walking around on someone else’s leading strings?” (15) This question, eventually revealed as the question of complacency, presents its profound significance later in the chapter “Baal,” as Dostoevsky uses the example of French society to illustrate just how dangerous and ignorant it is to become complacent with one’s society. Of the French people, he notes, “…they have really convinced themselves that they are content and completely happy, and…and…they have stopped at that” (35). This chapter is particularly striking in its juxtaposition of this complacency and his depictions of the unbelievable and abominable poverty. The presentation of the degeneration and poverty in such a “civilized” country makes for a strong correlation of the problems of Russian society, particularly in its adaptation of a culture that they consider to be so “civilized” yet is equally as rife with oppression, poverty, and so forth. Whether it be dainty undergarments or padding, Dostoevsky asserts that “civilization is not progress, but, on the contrary, in recent times in Europe it has stood over all progress with the whip and with prison!” (23).

In considering Dostoevsky’s argument, it is important to consider what W.E.B. Du Bois once coined as “double-consciousness,” that is, Dostoevsky’s ability to criticize the class of nobility that he belongs to, while simultaneously also view them from the perspective of the common people, a perspective he came to understand during his imprisonment in Siberia. This “double-consciousness” allows us to view the nobility from an important, and hitherto unrepresented angle.

Reflections on "Winter Notes on Summer Reflections"

Submitted by Elyse J. Yarmosky on Wednesday, 9/30/2009, at 11:16 PM

I thoroughly enjoyed "Winter Notes on Summer Reflections," especially the essay centered on the bourgeois. Here emerges the philosophy that I so enjoy finding throughout Dostoevsky's works. His reflections on Paris, not even the actual city, but rather the concept of Paris and Parisians, are hilarious and fast-paced, yet at the same time insightful and heavy with perspective. His discussion of brotherhood and socialism were particularly interesting to me, as the claims that "man is still a long way from anthill...socialism is quite possible, but only in places other than France" reflect the utter despair of the French bourgeois and the selfishness of the individual man, yet in an almost humorous manner not seen in "House of the Dead." I hope to read more of Dostoevsky's view of socialism and human nature in general!
   

Interesting thoughts on the Morality of Western Europe

Submitted by Danielle M. Morrissette on Wednesday, 9/30/2009, at 10:39 PM

In this book, I was struck by the narrator's less than thrilled reaction to Europe. It's almost as if he was excited about the thought of "Europe" so long that once he actually saw what it was he was heartily disappointed.  His initial disappointment at the Cathedral of Cologne reveals these feelings clearly. 

He moves on from describing the places he is visiting to the descriptions of the travelers. The ways that he makes fun of the European travelers who try to see every site in their guidebooks and the English who pay more attention to the guidebooks than the actual sites is all rather amusing. 

After these broad musings, the narrator moves on to the meat of the book i.e. social commentary. He speaks of this new class of the bourgeoisie I believe with a mixture of praise and distaste. Praise for their work ethic, disdain for their lopsided morality. He mentions that if a person were simply to steal a piece of bread to feed his family, this would obviously be a crime, but someone trying to steal a piece of bread to benefit the future of humanity would be entirely different to this group.

The social critiques of the English were incredibly moving. His comparison of the Catholic priest versus the Anglican priest is quite remarkable. The Catholic priest will help the family in order to covert them but the Anglican priest will not find himself amongst the poor. Instead he would rather bar them from entering his church for their inability to pay the rate to sit on the bench or go to Africa to convert one person when there is much help that is needed at home.

I believe that the end result of this man's travels is that while everyone in St. Petersburg is so enamored of everything in Western Europe, this narrator is instead seeing it as it actually is and not as it is glamorized. The descriptions of the lives of the working poor in England are detailed with its horror and degradation. It seems in a way, that the narrator is stuck with all of the modern ideas of the time, since they really aren't that consistent. If one is to have fraternity, one cannot have individuality. If one is to be a good Christian, how can one be a socialist? What do all of these labels entail? These are all of my thoughts coming away from this work.

Relationship between Freedom and Humanity in the Christmas Dinner scene

Submitted by Muddasir M. Ayaz on Wednesday, 9/30/2009, at 9:14 PM

In class, we touched on the subject of the feeling of freedom and its enabling power on the prisoners. The chapter, "The Feast of Christmas" seems in particular to highlight this relationship. Dostoyevsky suggests that free will or freedom enables the prisoner to rise above the animal instincts and achieve a degree of humanity, and in the Chapter, he focuses particularly on the role of religion in this relationship. We know that Dostoyevsky had a spiritual awakening during his prison experience, so it, in a sense, not surprising that it appears in the text. However, he seems to be making a deeper commentary.

The Christmas dinner and conduct described by Goryanchikov does not fit well with the conduct described at other parts of the book. The language in particular suggests something akin to repentance of afterthought of sin on Christmas Eve and the next day as well. Goryanchikov makes a particular distinction between men with silence and respectable conduct, and Akim Akimych, who simply performs the rituals in a meaningless and dictated manner. The fact that the narrator goes to great lengths to differentiate the man who merely performs rituals for the sake of performing them, and the man who takes some meaning in his religious experience. It is in this religious experience that we see the convicts being described as human. It is as if the repentance and spiritual connection they feel on this day gives them a spiritual freedom that is part of the humanization process. The songs in particular make a note of this. The verse, "No one sees us in our prison/How we live, together tossed/God our Heavenly Creator's with us/Even here we are not lost" (175). Is the religious transcendence as a means of escaping a type of prison (presumably a moral or ethical one) or does it merely serve to highlight the necessity of faith of some kind of another, a simple survival skill, like knowing how to mend clothes?

some thoughts on "Winter Notes on Summer Impressions"

Submitted by Corina Leu on Wednesday, 9/30/2009, at 5:59 PM

Although this short piece is extremely Dostoevskian, I have difficulties placing it in the context of his previous work. The reflections seem rushed, blunt, and extremely exhilirating. These being characteristics that Dostoevky rarely makes use of. "Poor Folk," "The Double," and "The House of the Dead" are extremely verbose, slow, and tactful.

The exhiliration arrives purely from his active train of thought, and from the fact that perhaps he is not narrating fiction, but instead writing an account of his own personal experiences while travelling throughout Europe. This writing reveals much about Dostoevsky's thinking, and attitude towards foreigners. I especially enjoyed his reflection of Russian identity. "Are we in fact really Russians? Why does Europe create such a powerful, magical, alluring impression on us, no matter who we might be? That is, I am not speaking now of those Russians who have remained in Russia, those simple Russians whose name is fifty million, whom we hundred thousand to this day seriously regard as nobodies and whom our profound, satirical journals mock because they do not shave their beards. No, I am speaking now of our privileged upper class." (p. 8) His blunt honesty might offend the poor with this statement, but he touches a very important issue, the issue of how does one leave aside the Russian identity even among the Europeans? How does one maintain their privilege as an upper class citizen when regardless of how far they travel, their beards do not escape them? How far can one go before they realize that they are fated to be Russians? Europe lures all kinds of foreigners, but to be a Russian stranded in Europe means having a completely different experiece of its magic. The Russians who stay in Russia are stuck, and those who leave are stil just as stuck. Europe leaves a deep impression upon the Russians because to Russians there is no magic back home. Dostoevsky continues to say, "You see, our whole life, from earliest childhood, has been geared to the European mentality. Is it possible that any of us could have prevailed against this influence, this appeal, this pressure? How is it that we have not been regenerated once and for all into Europeans? ... Can it be that there is in fact some kind of chemical bond between the human spirit, and the native soil, so that you cannot tear yourself away from it and, even if you do tear yourself away, you nonetheless return?" (p.9)

Hope we can talk more about this issue of Russian identity in class. It's truly very wonderfully depicted by Dostoevsky.

Final thoughts on The Complaint

Submitted by Victoria E. Gauthier on Tuesday, 9/29/2009, at 9:51 PM

 

Some final thoughts on House of the Dead…

Ultimately, what role is the intelligentsia supposed to play in social reform for the peasants’ benefit?  For the most part, their aid is rejected by the common folk, as evidenced by Goryanchikov’s purposeful exclusion from “The Complaint.”  Objectively, this decision doesn’t make much sense.  If the peasants didn’t care about Goryanchikov’s wellbeing as a nobleman, why not just take advantage of his voice, of another pair of legs to stand in the complaint line?  “If we all made a complaint, we’d get some action.” (309).   The unfortunate reality that Goryanchikov’s account highlights is that alone, the peasants are terrible at accomplishing anything by themselves.  Despite G’s description of the convicts as “quarrelsome and rebellious by their very nature” (311), their unified resolve immediately crumbles upon the major’s arrival.  It’s clear that they need a voice, but the two types of peasant ringleaders that G describes on p. 311 do not seem to be getting the job done.  Perhaps what’s most disconcerting is the peasant reaction after THE COMPLAINT.   G observes their attitudes, commenting that “many of the men made fun of themselves openly, as though they were punishing themselves for having attempted to make a complaint…some of them even appeared to be ashamed of themselves” (319).  They didn’t even lodge a strong complaint in the face of their prison authorities!  Conversely, in response to the crimes that landed them in prison, the prisoners feel no such embarrassment or remorse: “as long as his crime is not against one of his own kind…his conscience is untroubled and his freedom from moral embarrassment gives him strength” (231). Why is complaining about one’s living conditions more morally embarrassing than killing a child?  

Reflection on the Penal System

Submitted by Susannah E. Rudel on Monday, 9/28/2009, at 5:02 PM

As I completed my reading of The House of the Dead I found myself continuing to focus on the Dostoevsky’s social commentary, particularly that relating to the Russian penal system.  Aleksandr records that from the Major’s perspective, …”all that was required in dealing with these convict villains was severity and constant, literal application of the law” (184).  The major believes it is his duty to impose discipline, but as we mentioned in class the other day, there is no mention of rehabilitation for the convicts.  How is a man to change if he only works and is never encouraged to outwardly reflect on his crime and repent?  Realizing this aspect of the penal system perhaps helps explain why Aleksandr witnesses so little remorse in his fellow companions, and why the reader sees no remorse in Aleksandr.  I also wonder if this aspect of the penal system could also help explain Aleksandr’s behavior upon leaving the prison, but I am unsure where to go with that idea.

Further, in his description of corporal punishments at the prison, Dostoevsky, through Aleksandr’s voice, comments on the problem of tyranny and cruelty within society.  Aleksandr notes that power over others is tempting for humans, and the penal system essentially relies on this trait of humanity in order to enforce its punishments; “…the right given to one man to administer corporal punishments to another is one of society’s running sores, one of the most effective means of destroying in it every attempt at, every embryo of civic consciousness, and a basic factor in its certain and inexorable dissolution” (242).  Dostoevsky seems to be saying that the existing system of corporal punishment is a cause for ruin in society.  When one man is legally given the right to inflict pain on another, it is easy for him to forget the humanity shared between them.  While I agree the punishments often are unjustified and unnecessarily harsh, given that physical punishment was the norm at the time this was written, I am unsure what Dostoevsky is suggesting in lieu or corporal punishment.